Judah Maccabee depicted in an illustration for the 1553 French volume, Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum. He was the most famous of the Hasmoneans. We know about the glory of the dynasty. Few people remember the madness that tainted most of the males of this family.
In a previous post, (Prologue Part One, from August 22, 2011) which is now placed in the August archives, I told the story of the death of Alexander Jannaeus, and his advice to his wife, Alexandra. Despite the monstrous, probably insane character of this man, there is no doubt he that he understood what was best for her to do – and she followed it to the letter.
Alexandra stepped into the kingship easily and without opposition. She was, after all, a Hasmonean herself as well as the wife of a Hasmonean king. But very little is known about her genealogy. Who was this enigmatic woman, what was she like? Why did her people love her so much? The Jewish legends tell that the prosperity she brought was so incredible that fruit grew larger than normal, and rain fell only on Friday nights so as not to deprive the working people from their work time; obviously, her success was mythologized because of their love for her.
Most of the factual information about her comes from Josephus, the historian. Don’t let the serious image of a respected ancient historian mislead you. He was the greatest gossip, and rumor mongering was something he delighted in. Had he lived in later times, Hollywood would have loved him. He was ambivalent about Alexandra. “She was a woman who showed no signs of the weakness of her sex,” writes Josephus, and this might have been a double-edged compliment in those days. The Pharisees, as I mentioned in the previous post, loved her. They saw her as one of them, not only because she tended to side with them, but because a very important Pharisee, Simon be Shetah, might have been her brother, or at least a very close relative. So without doubt, Salome Alexandra had strong Pharisee connections, and was of a noble family. Nevertheless, her entire existence is full of riddles. The greatest is that there may have been one Alexandra, but then again, there may have been two. It’s a historical mystery worthy of detection, so here is the case.
It starts with the nephew of the most famous Hasmonean, Judah Maccabee, the one best known from the Hanukah story. The nephew’s name was Hyrcanus, and he functioned as both high priest and king. Hyrcanus had three sons, Aristobolus, Antigonus, and Alexander Jannaeus. Aristobolus, the eldest, married a woman named Salina Alexandra, and they were childless. Salina was described as practical, intelligent and inclined to politics and intrigue.
Hyrcanus died relatively young, and Aristobolus, as the eldest son, became the King-Priest. He treated one of his brothers, Antigonus, with affection and respect, but had arrested his other brother, Alexander Jannaeus, and their mother, and kept them in prison. He had feared his mother, since his father meant to leave the government to her, and he thought she might conspire against him; the Hasmoneans were never gentle toward their relatives... As for Alexander Jannaeus, the relationship between the two was always strained. The mother and son languished in prison, the mother eventually dying of hunger.
Antigonus, the second brother, was serving in the army. On one of his leaves Aristobolus fell ill, so Antigonus wore his best clothes and armor, and surrounded by his troops came to offer sacrifice in the Temple instead of his brother. While this was the appropriate thing to do, it was also the perfect occasion for stirring bad will between the brothers, and some of the ever-present plotters in the court told the king that his brother was trying to usurp the throne and quite possibly kill the king. The weak-minded Aristobolus decided to test his brother. If, he said, his brother would take off his armor before visiting him, he was innocent. But if he came armed, then he was to be killed by the guards. Salina Alexandra, who might have been the chief plotter, made sure her people told Antigonus that his brother wanted him to come in full armor, since it was a new suit and he wanted to see it in all its glory. Happy to oblige his brother and suspecting nothing, Antigonus proceeded to the Antonia Tower where his brother lay ill. He wore all his weapons and armor, ready to show it off to his brother. The guards, who had their orders, stabbed him to death as he entered the tower.
And now another twist comes into the plot. Some scholars say that Aristobolus died of his illness. Other scholars say that Salina Alexandra had him killed. There is no hard evidence either way. However, her childless condition may point to violence. Salina Alexandra wanted children, and so she needed a new husband. And in those days, children were of utmost importance even to ordinary women, let alone a queen concerned with the succession of her dynasty. She knew that if her husband died childless, Jewish law demanded that she must marry his brother right away and attempt to have children. And there was a young man, Alexander Jannaeus, the perfect potential father to the children she wanted, wasting his youth in prison!
And so as soon as Aristobolus died, Salina Alexandra released Alexander Jannaeus from prison and appointed him king. And then she suddenly disappeared from the literature and was never heard of again. This sudden disappearance of the major player in the saga does not make sense. What is mentioned, however, is that Alexander Jannaeus, now king, married very quickly. And the amazing thing is that the name of his wife was given as Salome Alexandra, a Pharisee noblewoman. Granted, Alexandra was a rather common name, but Salina and Salome are very close indeed, too similar to be a coincidence.
A new Salome Alexandra, a Pharisee princess, had no reason whatsoever to marry Alexander Jannaeus, nor would the populace be inclined to accept either of them. There was no particular love spent on Alexander Jannaeus, who was so long banished from the court. Something must have made him attractive enough to be allowed to be king. Therefore, the sly and brilliant Josephus claimed that Salina and Salome were one and the same, and the marriage made Jannaeus much more acceptable to the people.
The ages of the couple add to the probability, too. The new wife was about fifteen years older than her husband, who was only twenty-two years old. Why would a young king marry a wife so much older than himself? Generally, in those days, a man married a woman younger than himself or at least his own age. The marriage would only make sense if this was the same Alexandra. She enhanced his right to the throne by marrying him – she was, after all, the queen. And of course, he felt the need to obey the strong Jewish Law mentioned above, dictating that if a man dies childless, his brother must marry his widow and give her children. This law was taken very seriously by the Jews of that era. Despite her advanced age of thirty-seven, middle-aged by the standards of the period, she gave birth to two boys. The children she contrived and plotted and killed for.
When Jannaeus died, she was sixty-four years old. She took the throne, and held it for nine years of peace, plenty and security. The flawed, arrogant, selfish woman blossomed into a magnificent queen, the best of her dynasty. The grateful nation, so weary of bloodshed and trouble, so happy to experience the relief their queen brought them, changed her name just slightly to show how much they honored her. Salome, or Shlomit as it is in Hebrew, means peace. And the nation changed it to Shlomzion, which means Peace to the Kingdom of Zion.
She will be remembered as a strong, ruthless, devious woman, always practical, sometimes cruel, at other times very kind. A true Hasmonean, but mercifully spared the streak of madness that tainted so many of that glorious, accursed family. She ruled until illness and old age took her, nine years later. And the mad saga of the Hasmonean rule continued for some time, but never again with the grace and comfort that were the mark of the rule of Salome Alexandra.